A little after 8 a.m., Thursday, a bunch of guys piled into a van and headed off on their annual road trip.
The trip wasn’t what you usually associate with that term though.
For one thing, they drove all day and never made it out of Lowndes County.
The group of men included Lowndes County Road Manager Ronnie Burns, Assistant Road Manager Mike Aldridge, County Engineer Bob Calvert and State Aid Inspector Mike Whitney.
They started at the courthouse in downtown Columbus and from there spent the day driving the county’s roughly 105 miles of state aid roads, which connect communities within counties.
Each October the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction conducts a maintenance inspection of the roads it supports in Lowndes County, which make up about one sixth of the county’s roads.
“We do this in all 82 counties,” said Whitney, an engineer who moved to the state aid office from the Mississippi Department of Transportation in March. “I have 11 counties that I’m responsible for inspecting. It’s pretty much a year-round process. Each county designates when they want to have the inspection and we do it at the same time each year.”
Whitney said the inspections focus on maintenance issues only.
“Mainly, I’m looking at things like whether the grass is cut, because that can be a visibility issue, or if culverts are blocked or if there is debris that needs to be removed,” he said. “Of course, if I see any structural issues or problems that go beyond maintenance, I’ll share that with the county people.”
The county road office gets $4 million in state aid funds every four years, he said. The money is set aside for maintenance costs. In all, the state aid office administers a $175 million budget, almost all of which goes to build and maintain state aid roads in every county.
For Burns, the money is factored in to the $2.5 million in county funding.
“Of that, I’ll set aside $500,000 for maintenance throughout the county,” he said. “The $2 million remaining is divided among the five districts for construction projects.”
When the state aid money runs out, as sometimes occurs, Burns said he often supplements those funds with money from his budget.
“Since state aid roads are county roads too, we are responsible for maintaining them just like we maintain all the other roads,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little like robbing Peter to pay Paul. But we’re not going to put off maintaining any roads. We feel like all of the roads in the county have to be maintained, whether they are state aid roads are not.”
At the end of Thursday’s inspection, the county got a good report from the inspector.
“There were a couple of little minor things,” Burns said. “Just things that can crop up overnight. But when he left he told us he would give us an A-plus. That’s great, mainly because it means our roads are safe for the people. But it’s also a pat on the back for all our employees for their hard work.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]